Blinken in ME for tough Gaza talks; regional conflict surges - as it happened

Ahram Online , Friday 5 Jan 2024

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed back to the Middle East in his fourth trip to the region since the Gaza war began on 7 October. The chances of a regional war have increased with Israel determining to strike Hamas resistance leaders no matter where they are. Meanwhile, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and pro-Iran groups have been stepping up attacks on US-Israel interests.

A picture taken on January 5, 2024 shows buildings damaged during Israeli bombardment in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip AFP -


18:00 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Turkey as part of his weeklong tour in the Middle East. His visit aims to address NATO-related issues and discuss the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza. Blinken's trip comes amid rising regional tensions following the assassination of Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al-Arouri and twin explosions in Iran.

Blinken's first stop in Turkey will involve discussions with his Turkish counterpart on various matters, including NATO-related concerns. Then, he will travel to Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt. His stated objective is to prevent further escalation of violence and instability in the region. However, the United States has maintained a firm line vetoing any resolution that calls for a ceasefire in the UNSC, continuing to provide financial and military support to Israel. 
The recent assassination of Al-Arouri in Beirut's southern suburbs, which has been attributed to Israel, and the subsequent twin explosions in Iran have heightened the risk of a broader regional conflict. The responsibility for the explosions in Iran has been claimed by the IS. In light of these events, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller emphasized the need to prevent further escalation, stating that it is in the interest of no country in the region or the world.
This marks Blinken's fourth visit to the Middle East since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza on 7 October. During his trip, he will emphasize the importance of protecting civilian lives in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. He will also prioritize securing the release of remaining hostages, increasing the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance, and resuming essential services in Gaza. Additionally, Blinken aims to address the issue of forced displacement and discuss mechanisms to reduce violence, calm rhetoric, and ease regional tensions.
Blinken's visit comes amid the United States' refusal to support a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Israeli war on Gaza. The decision has sparked outcry both regionally and internationally, prompting concerns about the escalation of violence and the humanitarian crisis in the region.


17:00 ​Amid escalating tensions, a heated dispute has emerged between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Yoav Galant over the formation of an investigative team to probe the events of 7 October, according to Israel's Channel 12.

The disagreement stemmed from Netanyahu's decision to prohibit the attendance of Mossad chief David Barnea and Shin Bet security agency head Ronen Bar at a war cabinet session. Galant argued that such restrictions jeopardized Israel's security, while Netanyahu and Galant denied the existence of any major rift and affirmed their commitment to achieving victory in the war.

In a related development, the Israeli mini cabinet meeting concluded abruptly due to intense clashes between Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and several ministers regarding the composition of the investigative team for the 7 October events. This prompted Netanyahu to abruptly terminate the meeting, which was originally scheduled to discuss the post-war phase in Gaza.

The session reportedly witnessed heated exchanges and shouting matches, with ministers criticizing Halevi's appointment with Shaul Mofaz, who oversaw the unilateral withdrawal plan from Gaza in 2005, to lead the investigation team. Approximately three months after the events, Halevi decided to establish a security team to investigate the military, intelligence, and security failures during the 7 October incidents.

The investigative team will include former security officials, with Shaul Mofaz serving as its head. Additionally, Zeevi Farkash, former head of military intelligence, and Sami Turgeman, former commander of the Southern Command, will each lead investigations within their respective domains. According to Israeli media, the investigations will also encompass the conduct of military operations during the war in Gaza.

The investigation, as announced by the former chief of staff, will focus on two main aspects. Firstly, it will delve into the failures that took place during the events of 7 October. The specific details surrounding these failures have not been disclosed at this time.

Secondly, the inquiry will assess the army's readiness for ground maneuvers within the Gaza Strip. This aspect aims to evaluate the army's level of preparedness and effectiveness for potential operations in the region.

16:30 Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has responded to the killing of Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al Arouri in Beirut by stating that a response is "undoubtedly coming." Nasrallah made the remarks during a speech on Friday, expressing that Hezbollah would not remain silent in the face of such a violation, as it would mean that all of Lebanon would be at risk.

Al Arouri had been living in exile in Beirut under the protection of Hezbollah. Nasrallah praised Hezbollah's military strategy along the Lebanon-Israel front, stating that it has stabilized the balance of deterrence. He emphasized that there is an opportunity to liberate every inch of Lebanese land and prevent Israeli violations of borders and airspace.

Nasrallah also highlighted the unified resistance against Israel and the US by the so-called Axis of Resistance, a collection of Iran-backed groups supporting Hamas in Gaza. He mentioned the opportunity to remove American forces from Iraq and how Yemen has exposed the US for its actions in the Red Sea.

Nasrallah revealed that Hezbollah had carried out 670 operations on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the past three months, averaging six to seven operations per day. He claimed that Hezbollah has destroyed a significant number of tanks and equipment.

According to Nasrallah, the Israeli military is hiding its losses on the Lebanon-Israel front, and he criticized the accuracy of the figures presented by Israel. Israel has reported the deaths of nine soldiers and four civilians since Hezbollah initiated its cross-border conflict in October to deter Israel's assault on Gaza.

Nasrallah reiterated that Hezbollah opened a Lebanese front against Israel to pressure it to halt aggression against Gaza and alleviate military pressure on the region. He warned Israel against escalating the conflict, as the settlers in northern Israel would be the first to pay the price of a war on Lebanon.

In a significant statement, Nasrallah noted that, for the first time ever, Israel has established a buffer zone within its own borders, referring to the ongoing situation along the Lebanon-Israel frontier.

16:00 Lebanon has taken a significant step in response to the targeted killing of Hamas deputy chief Saleh Al Arouri in Beirut by filing a complaint with the United Nations Security Council. The complaint, dated January 4 and recently seen by Reuters, describes the incident as the "most dangerous phase" of Israel's attacks on Lebanon.

According to the complaint, Israel utilized six missiles in the attack that resulted in the death of Al Arouri. Additionally, Lebanon accuses Israel of exploiting Lebanese airspace to carry out bombings in Syria.

The killing of Saleh Al Arouri has raised tensions in the region, and Lebanon's complaint to the UN Security Council underscores the gravity of the situation. By submitting the complaint, Lebanon is seeking international recognition and condemnation of an unlawful act of aggression by Israel.

The targeted killing has put added tension to the Israeli war on Gaza and the near-daily exchange of fire along the borded between Lebanon and Israel.

Hundreds of people attended the funeral in Beirut on Thursday of Hamas number two Saleh Al-Aruri who was assassinated in a Lebanon strike blamed on Israel.

Calling on Hamas to avenge his death and the killing of five other members of the Palestinian resistance group on Tuesday, the mourners gathered at a mosque to recite the prayer of the dead before marching to Shatila refugee camp, the site of an infamous Israeli massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in 1982, where three of them were to be buried.

The coffins of the three, Aruri, Azzam Al-Aqraa of the Hamas military wing Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, and Mohammad Al-Rais, were draped in Palestinian and Hamas flags.

15:00 Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani said he was determined to "put an end" to the "international anti-jihadist coalition" in his country after a US strike in Baghdad killed a pro-Iran commander.

Al-Sudani, whose government relies on support from Tehran-aligned parties, has repeatedly said in recent weeks he would like to see foreign troops leave Iraq.

The latest remarks came amid soaring regional tensions, with the repercussions of the Israeli war on Gaza raging for nearly three months, increasingly felt in Iraq and across the Middle East.

A US drone strike on Thursday killed a military commander and another member of Harakat Al-Nujaba, a faction of Hashed Al-Shaabi a collection of mainly pro-Iranian former paramilitary units now integrated into the Iraqi armed forces.

Washington labeled the attack in Iraq's capital an act of self-defense, while Al-Sudani's government decried it as an act of "blatant aggression" on the part of the US-led coalition.

The Iraqi premier on Friday "affirmed his firm position seeking to put an end to the existence of the international coalition, as the justifications for its existence have ended," according to a statement issued by his office.

He said the "dialogue" to take place soon would "determine the procedure to end this presence," the statement added.

It noted that Al-Sudani was speaking at a commemoration for slain Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who led the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations and was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020.

US and other coalition forces in Iraq, deployed since 2014 in the fight against the Islamic State group, have come under regular attacks since 7 October.

Washington says there have been more than 100 attacks on its forces in Iraq and neighbouring Syria since mid-October 2023.

14:45 Shipping giant Maersk said that it would divert all vessels around Africa instead of using the Red Sea and Suez Canal for the "foreseeable future" after Yemeni rebels attacked its merchant ships.

The Danish company cited the highly volatile situation, especially the increase in drone attacks and the Israeli war on Gaza, noting that the security risk remains high.

"We have therefore decided that all Maersk vessels due to transit the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden will be diverted south around the Cape of Good Hope for the foreseeable future," it said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the shipping giant said it would not resume passage on the route "until further notice" after putting it on hold following an attack on the Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou.

On Sunday, the Denmark-owned and -operated container vessel, which was traveling from Singapore to Port Suez in Egypt, reported being struck by a missile while transiting the Bab Al-Mandab Strait.

The Houthis have repeatedly targeted vessels in the vital Red Sea shipping lane.

They say the strikes are in solidarity with Palestinians in the war-ravaged besieged Gaza Strip, which Israel has bombarded relentlessly for three months.

14:30 At least six people were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a home in the southern Gaza city of Rafah overnight, AP reported. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have crammed into Rafah, one of the areas where Israel has told people to seek refuge, while the Israeli army continues to strike all parts of the besieged territory.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant says several thousands of Hamas fighters remain in northern Gaza, where entire neighborhoods have been blasted into rubble. Heavy fighting is also underway in central Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, where Israeli officials say Hamas’ military structure is still largely intact. 

14:00 The health ministry in Gaza said at least 22,600 people have been killed in the besieged Palestinian territory since the Israeli war on Gaza erupted on 7 October.

The ministry said in a statement it had recorded 162 deaths over the past 24 hours, while a total of 57,910 people have been wounded in nearly three months of fighting.

13:30 German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas is embarking on a crucial tour in the Middle East starting on Sunday.                             

The visit comes at a time of heightened tensions and complex challenges in the region, specifically the Israeli war on Gaza. 

Maas's tour aims to foster dialogue, strengthen diplomatic ties, and explore opportunities for cooperation. His itinerary includes visits to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt. 

The tour is expected to contribute to the ongoing discussions on a potential ceasefire and access to humanitarian aid for the citizens of the besieged Gaza Strip.

13:00 As Iran solemnly laid to rest the victims of twin bombings claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group,Revolutionary Guards Chief Hossein Salami vowed that Iran "will find you wherever you are," referring to any IS members behind the bombing plot.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said revenge for the killings will come at "the time and place determined by our forces."
The funeral ceremonies took place in Kerman, where mourners gathered to pay their respects to the 89 individuals who lost their lives in the attacks. The bombings occurred during a commemoration event for slain Islamic Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike four years earlier.
The suicide bombings targeted crowds in Kerman, resulting in the deaths of 89 people, according to state TV. The victims included women, children, and at least 12 Afghan nationals. 
While the IS group claimed responsibility for the bombings, Iranian officials have suggested the involvement of Israel and the United States. However, both the US and Israel have denied any connection to the attacks.
During the funeral ceremony, Salami dismissed the significance of IS, stating that the group had become a mercenary force serving the interests of the US and Israel. 
Salami assured the nation that Iran would track down any individuals involved in the bombings, vowing to bring them to justice.
Iranian President Raisi attended the funerals in Kerman, expressing his determination for revenge against those responsible for the killings. He also praised the Palestinian militant group Hamas for its recent attacks on Israel, declaring that the "Al-Aqsa Flood" operation would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Zionist regime.
The funeral procession took place at the Emam Ali mosque, where dozens of coffins wrapped in the Iranian flag were displayed. Mourners waved both the national flag and the yellow flag of Hezbollah, Iran's ally in Lebanon, which is currently enthralled in near-daily exchanges of fire with Israel along the border. 
President Raisi also visited Soleimani's grave during his visit to Kerman.
12:00 Israel's defense minister has publicly presented for the first time proposals for the post-war administration of Gaza, where the military reported deadly overnight strikes.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant's plan for the "day after," shared with the media late Thursday but not yet adopted by Israel's war cabinet, says that neither Israel nor Hamas will govern Gaza and rejects future Jewish settlements there.
The minister's broad outline was unveiled on the eve of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's fourth trip to the region since the 7 October war on Gaza.
Questions over the future of the besieged Palestinian territory have been front of mind for many as calls mount for a ceasefire after nearly three months of devastating fighting.
Much of the Gaza Strip has been reduced to rubble, while civilian deaths have soared, and the UN has warned of a humanitarian crisis that had left hundreds of thousands displaced, facing famine and disease.
According to Gallant's proposed outline, the war will continue until Israel dismantles Hamas's "military and governing capabilities" and secures the return of captives taken on 7 October.
After Israel achieves its objectives, for which the proposal sets no timeline, Palestinian "civil committees" will begin assuming the territory's governance, it said.
"Hamas will not govern Gaza, (and) Israel will not govern Gaza's civilians," according to the text, which offers little concrete details.
"Palestinian bodies will be in charge, with the condition that there will be no hostile actions or threats against the State of Israel," it added.

11:00 More than 76,000 individuals have been displaced in Lebanon over the past three months due to near-daily border violence, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated.

In its report, the IOM noted that the majority of displaced individuals, numbering 76,018, are from areas in southern Lebanon that share a border with Israel. It also revealed that over 80 percent of the displaced Lebanese have sought refuge with relatives, while others have relocated to collective shelters or moved further away from the border.

The situation remains tense as violence continues to erupt along the border, leading to the displacement of thousands of people and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon.

On Tuesday, Hamas television announced the assassination of the group's Deputy Head Saleh Aruri by Israel, in an unprecedented airstrike on the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Aruri and the six other Hamas members were killed in a strike in a south Beirut stronghold of Hezbollah.

Since the Israeli war on Gaza began, there have been near-daily exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah in the border area.

10:00 Palestinian teachers and volunteers in Gaza are converting displacement rooms into classrooms, offering educational opportunities to children who have lost their homes due to the ongoing war. These makeshift spaces provide a sense of normalcy and help uplift the spirits of the displaced population. The initiative aims to support children's education and foster a community of resilience and healing amid the challenges they are facing.

On Wednesday, some internally displaced Palestinians started sheltering in a zoo, hoping it would not be targeted by Israeli airstrikes. 

1.9 million people, or nearly 85 percent of the total population of Gaza, were estimated to be internally displaced, including some who have been displaced multiple times, as families are forced to move repeatedly in search of safety, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said.

Nearly 1.4 million are sheltering in 155 UNRWA facilities across all five governorates.

Rafah is now the main refuge for those displaced, with over one million people, squeezed into an extremely overcrowded space, following the intensification of hostilities in Khan Younis and Deir Al-Balah and the Israeli military’s evacuation orders. 

UNRWA added that the number of people in the northern governorates has not been updated since 12 October, due to access constraints and the security situation preventing verification.


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